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Hydrogen fuel sensor could 'banish the spectre of the Hindenburg disaster'

Joseph Flaig

Members of the team which worked on the safety sensor (Credit: R-Tech Materials)
Members of the team which worked on the safety sensor (Credit: R-Tech Materials)

A new safety sensor could help banish the spectre of the Hindenburg disaster and secure hydrogen’s place as a secure and environmentally-friendly fuel, a company has claimed.

R-Tech Materials director Tony Franks said he was “delighted” after the business won a JEC Asia Innovation award for its work on the device. The sensor, which was developed with TWI, Pancom and Arcola Energy, provides an early safety warning for potential leaks from hydrogen cells in cars.

The environmentally-friendly fuel could play a key part in reducing carbon dioxide emissions by powering cars and buses around the world. However, it is also highly flammable, making any leak a potentially serious hazard.

“Hydrogen is a very clean fuel and enables vehicles to run for long distances,” said Franks. “However, the public perceive it to be incredibly dangerous, thanks to Germany's infamous Hindenburg, the hydrogen-filled zeppelin airship that exploded. Our early-warning sensor system hopes to redress the balance by helping reassure drivers that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles can be safe as well as clean.”

The new devices use acoustic emissions sensors from Pancom, which contain highly resonant piezoelectric material. The material generates voltage when compressed, sending signals of varying frequencies and amplitudes which can be analysed.

The sensors would be placed on the surface of cylindrical storage cells. When drivers fill up their tanks, the sensors would analyse the vibrations, which change with any potential damage to the cell. “If a crack happens in a material, it will travel through that medium along the surface and then the sensor will pick up that movement, like a deflection,” said Pancom head Chris Rowland to Professional Engineering. The sensor would then send warnings to the manufacturer showing different levels of damage.

Although there are currently relatively few hydrogen cars compared to hybrid and electric models and few places to fill up tanks, Rowland said it was important to do the work now before more widespread use. “It’s early days of course, because there’s not many vehicles about, but we needed to get some kind of design upfront,” he said.

The companies have produced a prototype of the early-warning sensor and it is undergoing field trials. The project was funded by government body Innovate UK.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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